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Real San Francisco 

Hyde Street Bistro

Wednesday, Sep 6 2000
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The Hyde Street Bistro is what you'd call a real San Francisco kind of place. It's one of those little neighborhood eateries you might see tucked away on a foggy side street in Bernal Heights or Noe Valley or the Richmond where each of the dozen or so tables has a tea candle and a vase with a single red rose and the chef is married to the manager and half of the clientele live just up the street and wander in for a bite on a twice-weekly basis. Per the San Francisco multicultural model, the cuisine at this kind of place might be anything from Italian to Vietnamese to Indian, but at the Hyde Street Bistro it's French: all the better to encourage wholesale snuggling against the midsummer chill with a bottle of Sancerre Rouge and a bowl of lamb stew. And most San Francis-kish of all, if the stroll to the bistro is too inevitably vertical, you can hop a passing cable car, enjoy an aural aperitif of humming and clanging, and be deposited at le rendezvous in time for supper.

The neighborhood encompassing this hangout is Russian Hill, which happens to be my neighborhood too. It's a nice place to live if you don't mind the sprawling, flaxen-haired urban professionals in their tennis whites sipping Ethiopia Sidamo from plastic-topped paper cups; there are many compensations. Frank Norris, Imogen Cunningham, and Jack Kerouac used to live within a block or two of my apartment. Every uphill stroll is rewarded with a stunning view of bay and bridge and island and inlet. There are hidden lanes and ornate cottages and overgrown gardens sprouting in the unlikeliest places. The rambling pedestrian can avoid the chugging sports utility vehicle altogether along a random series of verdant and exhaust-free urban staircases. There's Russian Hill Park at Larkin and Francisco and the splendidly vestibuled old apartment buildings along Hyde and Leavenworth and the sheer, dizzying drop from the top of Jones and Green and the sunrise vista from Jones and Broadway, North Beach stretching out below.

When you get hungry there are the glazed old-fashioned doughnuts at Bob's at Polk and Sacramento and the butter pecan ice cream at Swensen's at Hyde and Union and the horseradish cheddar at Leonard's 2001 at Polk and Pacific and the yogurt-granola sundae at Polkers at Polk and Green. Zarzuela and Antica and La Folie are within sniffing distance, there's belly dancing at Pasha at Broadway and Polk, the Alhambra Theater's glorious ruins are discernible from several blocks away, and there's an international newsstand at Polk and Green where you can purchase the latest Le Figaro and a lottery ticket just possibly redeemable in the high eight figures. There's even a Walgreens or two.

When you go out to eat in your own neighborhood it's best to gather your fellow diners at your apartment for a cocktail or a glass of wine beforehand and bask in the realization that you don't have to figure out which bus goes where and how many times you'll have to transfer and if Owl Service will be absolutely necessary. That's exactly what a few neighbors and I did the other night as we sipped homemade martinis in my kitchen to the counterpoint of the Alcatraz foghorn and the sesame-oil cooking smells of the guy downstairs, an encompassingly San Francisco moment. As hill-hardened locals we skipped the cable car, however, and walked the half-dozen blocks to Hyde and Jackson.

In appearance, the Hyde Street Bistro is simplicity itself: Several closely spaced tables are arrayed in a small, well-lit, wood-paneled dining room sparsely decorated with the inevitable aperitif posters, with one table tucked away in a shadowy, muraled nook ideal for intime dining. Just beyond the far wall is the kitchen and its accompanying sounds of chopping and sizzling. The overall mood is casual and jovial and pleasantly chatty; light and music spill out the big storefront windows, beaconing your approach, and the good smells stroke you as soon as you walk in the door.

The bill of fare is as French as can be: None of this fusion-Mediterranean-Pacific-Rim stuff, just pâté and escargot and entrecôte and fromage and like that. Chef Fabrice Marcon's creations are satisfying and hearty, more Provençal than the dithery delicacies one associates with the City of Light, and if a few of the dishes are on the perfunctory side, there are several others available to delight both palate and stomach -- like the tarte Alsacienne, a creamy-smoky evocation of country goodness all wrapped up in a delicate crust, with onions caramelized to the sweet and supple point and bacon-studded fromage blanc adding sharpness and texture.

Another cheese, a warm and fragrant brie, enlivens a mesclun salad nicely if briefly dressed with a mustard vinaigrette, while another salad, this one of frisée, is rich with bacon and garlicky croutons but burdened with an overly vinegary sherry vinaigrette. The oxtail terrine is chewy and ponderous and heavy on the tarragon, but another appetizer, the salmon tartare, is everything an hors d'oeuvre should be: Smooth, supple, almost creamy in texture, its raw and essential nature is served up without distractions save a perfectly complementary squeeze of lemon and a hint of olive oil.

Marcon's bouillabaisse is marvelously earthy, a rich and spicy brew brimming with Mediterranean flavors and textures, with long slender spears of crouton and dollops of creamy rouille, the perfect foils for the wine and saffron and mussels and scallops and prawns. The lamb stew isn't as successful; the lamb is tender enough, and the carrots and potatoes are properly al dente, but the spicing is rudimentary and the broth is overly salty. The duck confit is also on the so-so side: The crisp, honey-glazed skin and the green olives alongside create interesting culinary contrasts, but the flesh is a bit overdone and not particularly memorable. But the côte de porc has a depth and richness to it unpossessed by lesser pork chops, with a sparkly sauce diable and earthly mashed potatoes lending stellar support.

For dessert there's a rich, molten flourless dark chocolate cake, tough profiteroles pleasantly stuffed with espresso chantilly and topped off with warm chocolate sauce, and a silky-smooth crème caramel touched with the orange-blossom decadence of Grand Marnier; but the outstanding meal-closer is the tarte Tatin, one of the best I've ever eaten. The apples, tender but still firm enough to give the dish a pleasant bite, are caramelized to the perfect level of sweetness and enclosed in a crisp, buttery pastry not unlike an exemplary, vanilla-scented madeleine. With a scoop of vanilla ice cream melting alongside, this is a thoroughly satisfying finish to your meal.

Many of the selections on the 60-item, French/California wine list are on the expensive side of the ledger, particularly the Old Country vintages, but the offerings are substan-tial and include such treasures as the 1997 La Gardine Châteauneuf-du-Pape, the 1997 Canepa Alexander Valley chardonnay, and the 1997 Monrepos single vineyard merlot. There are also several half-bottle and by-the-glass selections as well as five aperitifs.

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Matthew Stafford

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